Isaiah 58:1-12; Mark 1:9-15
Mark tells the story of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness succinctly. It takes two verses: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mk 1:12-13). On these things all three synoptic gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - agree: that following his baptism Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. Matthew and Luke include the tempter’s threefold temptation of Jesus. They also claim that the Spirit of God did not drive Jesus into the wilderness but, rather, led him there. They are more polite than Mark. Mark alone says that Jesus was with wild beasts during his sojourn. Only Mark records that angels cared for him there. Given the wilderness journey that we are currently walking in the land of multiple myeloma I rather like Mark’s portrayal of the wilderness as a place of encounter with wild beasts - perhaps plasma cells running amok - and of being sustained by angels - even a congregation of angels. I also rather like the portrayal of the wild beasts on this morning’s order of service - a goat and a rabbit keeping an eye on a slumbering Jesus. Really?! I suppose the point is that even the wildest of beasts - a crack addiction, say, or a traumatized family or, well name your own dangerous beast - are about as dangerous to Jesus as a cute little billy goat or bunny rabbit. There is one other difference in Mark’s telling of the forty days in the wilderness. Did you notice it? Both Matthew and Luke make the point that Jesus’ did not eat for forty days and, at the end, was famished. Mark seems to know nothing of this. What fast does Jesus choose in his forty day journey into the wilderness? Mark does not say except to imply that Jesus does not stop eating.
But Jesus does stop, which is to say that he fasts. Jesus stops his everyday life. He goes into the wilderness. He lives in a new, dangerous place. He endures temptation. He chooses a fast. In the season of Lent the church follows Jesus into the wilderness. For forty days the church stops its everyday life and lives in a world of temptation, temptation to live a life of ease in the face of suffering and trouble. The season of Lent began as a period of preparation for baptism. In the formative centuries of Christianity the training period prior to baptism was often three years in length. The church understood that becoming a disciple of Christ did not happen overnight. Changing the habits and assumptions formed over a lifetime would take time. Converting your way of life was understood to be a great challenge. Then, in the last forty days before baptism at the Easter Vigil, those who were to be received into the body of Christ joined Jesus in enduring the trials of temptation. Over time it became the custom for those who had already been baptised to join in this period of preparation as an act of solidarity with Jesus’ new recruits.
The church's lenten journey in the wilderness is familiar to us in this time and place. Carmen’s beautiful image that accompanies the season of Lent in the Christian Seasons Calendar captures it well. We live in a land in which it is hard to grow the seeds of a gospel life into full flower. In this wilderness of excess and consumption we find it very tempting to have our fill of bread and circuses while forgetting the way of Jesus Christ. Even the church itself can become a dispenser of chicken soup for the soul, offering up a thin gruel of comfort when so many go without compassion and care. This is the warning that is shouted into Lent by the prophet Isaiah. It is a warning that often goes unnoticed. His voice is consigned to that of an alternative reading for Ash Wednesday. It is easy to miss. Between Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday of Lent the preacher has nine readings to choose from today. When given that choice, it is not hard to see why Isaiah’s dangerous voice is regularly silenced.
Isaiah speaks to a people who have turned worship into a means of getting what they want from God. They imagine that if they say the right prayers, make the proper confessions, preach faithful sermons and make sacrificial offerings that God will be pleased. But God does not take notice and so they wonder: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Is 58:3). Through the prophet the people hear the strong word of the LORD: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help and he will say, Here I am” (Is. 58:5-9).
This is one of those texts that really requires no interpretation from the preacher. How did Mark Twain put it? “Most people are bothered by those passages of scripture they do not understand, the passages that bother me most are those I do understand.” What fast do we choose this Lent? It is not ours to choose. God has chosen the fast for us. It is a fast from ignoring our kin, our sisters and brothers who go hungry, without shelter, without clothes. To be marked with the ash of mortality is to stand in solidarity with our fellow mortals, all loved by the God who is a lover of justice and of righteousness. How appropriate that on this first Sunday of Lent we host Stephen Gray from First United Church where the fast from hunger and homelessness and nakedness is kept every day of the year. Participating in the ministry at First United is a means of keeping the fast that God chooses.
Such fasting from apathy, such feasting on empathy results, says Isaiah, in our needs satisfied and in our bones made strong, in a church that is like a watered garden and a ruin restored. To keep the fast of feeding and sheltering and clothing is to be known as “the repairer of the breach” (Is. 58:11-12). Here is the reason that we gather at table of the Lord each Sunday in Lent. Here we feast on the abundance of God. Here we taste the kingdom come, where God’s will is done and none go without food, without shelter, without clothing. To celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist - the Great Thanksgiving - is to live our lives out of the generosity of God, the God who dies so that we may live. The words we are about to sing say it so beautifully: “God brings new beauty nigh; reply, reply, reply with love to love most high” (from “Now Quit Your Care” by Percy Dearmer).